Organizations Help Prepare People who Want to Start a New Business
Starting your own business can be daunting, but budding entrepreneurs don’t have to do it alone – a variety of organizations offer free or low-cost help.
Three such organizations are:
- Central Florida SCORE, a non-profit organization that educates entrepreneurs and helps small businesses start, grow and succeed through mentoring and educational workshops. It serves Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, as well as Plant City.
- The Florida Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business, which assists existing and emerging businesses in 10 counties, including Polk County, through no-cost confidential business consulting and low-cost training. It’s part of the Florida SBDC Network, which provides businesses with the expertise and resources to succeed and grow.
- Catapult, which was started by the Lakeland Economic Development Council nearly 10 years ago, provides affordable space, thoughtful education and funding opportunities to budding entrepreneurs “so we can help lower the barriers of entry to starting a business,” said President Christin Strawbridge.
Learn more about each below.
Mentors are a critical part of the process “to secure a successful start and growth plan,” said Becky Bywater, a SCORE mentor for 16 years. “Mentors are known to have said, ‘We were there, we made the mistakes, and we can help you avoid them. We have walked the walk and talked the talk. Let us help you.’”
Bywater said she tells budding entrepreneurs they must “be dedicated, have experience in the field and have good family support. Starting a business, especially from scratch, will change their life.”
She said they also must:
- Do their due diligence to ensure they have all the proper permits and other things necessary to stay out of potentially costly legal trouble.
- Develop a message. “They need to dig deep into themselves to understand why they are starting a business. They must ask themselves what they want their customers to know and describe how they can benefit from their services.”
Research is critical, she said, to determine the need for what is being offered and secure their future success. “It’s also important to understand and define their customer. Research the market for the product, the competition, competition’s message and marketing strategy. They should strive to put themselves above all others.”
Determining whether you have the time, money and commitment is essential before starting the journey.
“A mentor can help them to work through and understand what can be expected when you start a business. For example, if a client has a full-time job and starting this on the side, it will take a much longer preparation time. If they need a loan, then they need to understand the importance of a business plan. Commitment is something that goes along with the time factor and their determination to become their own boss.”
SCORE volunteers will help those seeking to open a business with a business plan, but they do not write it for them, Bywater said. Templates can be found online at sba.org or score.org. “We request they start writing the plan and then a Certified Mentor can help them with questions and to finalize the document.”
Bywater doesn’t sugarcoat things and even tells mentees that “there will be days when nothing goes right. There will be roadblocks and they must logically address them, think it through and come up with a plan to correct. They should have a mentor, a friend or a family member at their side to encourage them. There may be bad days, but once they have overcome those and are in business, the rewards will far outweigh the bad days.”
Florida SBDC at USF
Gregory Manning, one of SBDC‘s business consultant who works out of offices in Lakeland and Lake Wales, said it takes commitment and a significant amount of time, energy and possibly capital to start your own business.
“Often, clients think that starting a business will provide more free time and income than the job they are leaving,” he said. “In reality, they will have less free time and most likely make less money in their early years. However, if done correctly, time and money will come in the future.”
Manning said he’s “blunt and direct” when providing practical advice and realistic expectations. “I share personal experiences of working seven days a week for five years — only taking off Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. If they don’t understand the time, money and commitment necessary, they will have difficulty succeeding.”
Like Bywater, Manning said those wanting to start a business must do research first to “determine who their customer is, what competitors there are for the product and/or service they are selling and, specifically, what problem they are trying to solve.”
A business plan is vital, he said. “Without a plan, the owner has no direction or method to benchmark their success or failure. There is a lot of truth to the saying, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’ The narrative of a financial plan should be updated at least every other year. The quantitative portion of the plan should be updated monthly.”
A business plan also may help a business owner avoid pitfalls. “Pitfalls usually occur because of a lack of planning. While it’s impossible to plan for every variable, the more time and effort a person puts into their plan, the quicker they will be able to see a pitfall and pivot before it’s too late. Be proactive instead of reactive.”
Understanding your business’ cash flow is essential, Manning said. “Know where the revenue is coming from and where the expenses are going. Have the discipline to manage the financials monthly. Without the discipline of fiscal responsibility, the No. 1 cause of small business failure can occur — insolvency.”
The non-profit has continued to evolve through the years and has pivoted in the last year to “continue to find ways to better support entrepreneurs,” Strawbridge said. The downtown Lakeland organization now has 273 members, many of whom “are attracted to Catapult because of our state-of-the-art facility, but once they are here, they come to recognize the opportunity to learn and grow alongside like-minded entrepreneurs. More and more, founders are joining Catapult for the community and educational resources, and that is something we are really excited about.”
The “affordable space” includes 24/7 access to the state-of-the-art facility for memberships that start at $150 a month. The building has three main spaces:
- The Workspace, which houses co-working, desk and office members.
- The Kitchen Incubator, which is a commercial kitchen space.
- A Makerspace, which has a metal shop, wood shop, rapid prototyping station, textile room and more.
After talking with members, Strawbridge said Catapult is moving away from its educational model to a one-on-one mentorship model so members can meet with industry experts to get assistance with questions and advice on projects. “We are building a network of experts-in-residence and technical advisers.”
Catapult has hired experts-in-residence “to provide help in key business areas, such as accounting, finance, marketing, etc. Experts-in-residence have a presence at Catapult, whether in-person or online, for several hours per week. They are often available for follow-up meetings with a member after the member completes assigned homework. Because they are compensated for their time, the experts have a firm commitment to meeting with members and ensure that meetings are high quality with tangible next steps.”
Technical advisers have niche expertise and “can provide tangible, situation-specific advice to start-ups on a one-off basis,” she said. They volunteer up to twice a month and usually assist members only one time per problem.
“In moving to a 1:1 mentorship model, the first thing we do is ask a lot of questions,” Strawbridge said. “We interact with a lot of different types of businesses in a lot of different business stages, so we do what we can to walk alongside what we call Mission-Fit startups. These are the startups that we are best equipped to serve, and they are innovative and scalable, and their founder is coachable.”
Catapult also runs Lauanch, a microgrant program where small businesses can apply for up to $10,000 to purchase an asset that will lead to growth for their business, Strawbridge said. It has doled out more than $300,000 so far.
It’s also working with venture capital firms and angel investing groups in Lakeland and beyond “so we can connect members with more variety in funding opportunities,” she said. “For example, earlier this year we hosted a pitch night with TampaBay.Ventures.”
Budding entrepreneurs can get help writing a business plan. Having one “is most important as a guideline and reference point for running a business and also when applying for traditional funding. We have resources, mentors, staff and other members who can help with the creation of a business plan,” Strawbridge said.
Now that Catapult has honed in on its target customer – MissionFit startups – and how to supply mentors and funding, it plans to better track the success of those starting their business at the organization. “To date, we have had 27 businesses launch from Catapult into their own brick and mortar retail or office location.”
Workspace member Trafenia M.F. Salzman, CEO of Sittadel, said: “Catapult made it easier on us to start our cybersecurity business by offering us a community. We all are in different industries, but our goal is a common one: to make an impact on our community and the people around us. It still takes time, resources, effort and just that moxie, but one thing is for sure – it’s easier when you have that community.”